Why you should care
In the battle against deforestation, conservationists may finally have found a smart and efficient ally in the sky.
On an eight-acre plot of land just outside Bangalore in India, Omkar Subbaram Jois Narasipura and his team test out drones they hope will stem rapid deforestation that has caused the country to lose 54,000 square miles of forests over the past three decades. Traditionally it would take thousands of people marching along the dirt to dig small holes and planting seeds by hand to reforest — or build a forest for the first time — anywhere in India, without reliable data to track the success of the efforts. Narasipura, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science, has a smarter idea.
He and his team have developed fixed-wing and rotary-style drones that can carry around 22 pounds of seeds of multiple varieties, “seed-bombing” an area while live-streaming the operation. “We would like to call it a seed dropping,” Narasipura says. The seeds are either placed in a ball of fertilizer or soaked until ready to germinate and dropped as is, similar to a bird spreading a seed in the wind, he explains. And the drones will record how the landscape changes. “We can actually count the number of trees that have come up,” says Narasipura. Once a navigation path is decided and programmed, the drones can run autonomously.
It’s a strategy that’s taking off across South and Southeast Asia, as countries grapple with deforestation that — despite well-meaning conferences, endless studies and an army of environmentalists — seems stuck on autopilot. Now, researchers from Bangalore to Borneo are taking to the skies for a new defense of the tree line. With many of the capabilities of piloted aircraft but at a fraction of the cost, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly finding new applications outside of the military or fun with friends at a BBQ. In the near future, when a tree falls in the forest, drones might be there to see it. And possibly return later to bombard the area with seeds.
We want to take it all over India.
Omkar Subbaram Jois Narasipura, a scientist working with seed-planting drones
In Myanmar, the company BioCarbon Engineering is working on a plan to use six automated drones to plant up to 100,000 trees each day, under a grant it has won to plant a million mangroves in the country’s delicate delta region. Across the border in northern Thailand, at Chiang Mai University’s Forest Restoration Research Unit, Dr. Stephen Elliott says they’re working on a Styrofoam seed box that can be attached beneath commercially available drones. The box would open to drop seeds over difficult-to-access sites. He doesn’t plan to hoard his knowledge. Instead, Elliott says he hopes to put the plans for the add-ons, as well as the open-source code, online for “drone hobbyists to … get involved in reforestation.” And back in India, Narasipura isn’t satisfied with reforesting patches of land near Bangalore. Their drone’s modular design, he says, can be easily replicated. “We want to take it all over India,” he adds.
For conservationists, seed-bombing isn’t the only task drones can perform. They are also now deploying drones to track illegal logging. The World Wildlife Fund’s Eyes on the Forest program has been working with local groups on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, which has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world, to tackle illegal small-plot palm oil and pulp cultivation. The intelligence gathering can be treacherous for locals. “Their work is really dangerous. They’re up against the forest mafia in a lot of cases,” says WWF senior director Jan Vertefeuille. The areas are remote and satellite imaging can be thwarted by cloud cover. Drones can step around those challenges. “Drones have been a huge breakthrough in their work,” Vertefeuille says. Local activists have modified drones to work especially well in the jungle and with the use of 3D printers can make repairs in the field, all without risking their lives.
Alexander Watson of Open Forest, which collects data on forestry projects around the world using drones, pulls up a map using screen-share for an illustration of his UAVs’ capability. It’s a close-up of a small plot of land that’s part of a reforestation effort. The bird’s-eye view is sharp — 10 centimeters per pixel, he says — showing the tree lines and foliage of different sizes clearly. When he toggles to a satellite image, the contrasts disappear into a greenish blur. He says that image quality is a huge advantage to using drones, which are able to fly below cloud cover and even able to create 3D models with tree height, position and canopy diameter. That kind of knowledge could have taken weeks to obtain previously, trekking through the jungle on foot, he says.
But there are limitations. The major constraint, explains Watson, is coverage. Battery-powered drones can stay in the sky for a couple of hours at most. The data they collect is massive and needs significant computational power and expertise to process it.
Still, Watson predicts the use of UAVs in forest conservation will continue to grow. “Especially for the forestry sector, drones will be a daily device,” he says, similar to what GPS devices have become. The technology driving drones is itself advancing so fast that “the full limits” of its potential in conservation efforts aren’t yet known, says Watson. In the future, with increased data processing software and artificial intelligence, drone footage may help recognize a full stock of tree species, he predicts.
Meanwhile, Narasipura and his seed-bombing team in India have to deal with challenges such as occasional high winds — they had to suspend testing for a week in July. But after testing and retesting, in an estimated three years he’ll have reliable data on the method. He can then take that across the country to try to build a greener India. Almost automatically.